Monday, October 11, 2010

The Pain of Rejection

We would all agree that you are not going to get very far in this world if you cannot handle rejection.

But, we would also agree that you are not going to get very far in this world if you hand out too many rejections.

If we can make these two statements make sense we will have learned something important about social behavior.

Some people are completely impervious to rejection. Or at least that is how it seems.

Think of a man who makes cold calls for a living and another man who tries to pick up every women who crosses his path.

But are they really that impervious? One could easily argue that they have found a way to avoid rejection. How painful is it really when you are rejected by someone you do not know and have never met?

Surely, it takes a certain amount of courage to make a cold call or to ask fifty women to have a drink with you, but I fear that people who do this for a living are not quite as thick-skinned as they think.

You handle the lowest level of rejection, but how will you do if you feel rejected by people who are very close to you, friends,  family,  or loved ones?

Being rejected by those who know you best is considerably more painful than being rejected by a stranger at the other end of a telephone line.

Let's expand the example. Which is worse, being rejected by someone you have loved and been involved with or being rejected by a random hookup?

Clearly, the former is going to be more painful than the latter. If a young woman has decided to postpone marriage in the interest of building a career, would it not be somewhat logical for her to believe that not getting too involved in a relationship would limit the risk of relationship failure and feelings of rejection?

While no one would want to preclude the possibility that those nearest and dearest to you would reject you for reasons that are entirely of their own doing, most outside observers  assume that someone who is rejected by his intimates is being  judged harshly indeed.

This form of rejection applies to divorce. It explains why the rejection implied in divorce is so difficult to process. 

The same rules apply to acceptance. The fact that you are accepted into the company of certain people speaks well of you. The closer are the more you will look better for having been included in a prestigious group.

Something similar happens in business. Let's say that you are trying to land a new account? If you put everything you have into your presentation and are still not chosen, you are going to feel rejected.

But is the rejection personal; does it reflect on the quality of your work; or are there other reasons? And if it does reflect on the quality of your work will you be able to make the rejection into an incentive to improve yourself and make a better presentation the next time?

According to Susan Walsh, we can develop a no-fault theory of social rejection. Considering that we all want to learn not to take rejection personally, this theory will surely be of value.

In a world where social anomie is prevalent, and where people move around so much that they often do not know who they are or where they belong, serial rejections can help you find your way.

As Walsh puts it: "If you fake it in some scene where you don't belong, you're not going to make it. You will be sniffed out as an impostor and you will be rejected, repeatedly. Peer pressure is built on the power of fear of rejection." Link here.

In that situation, you are not being rejected for a moral failing, but because you are socially out of place. Feelings of rejection should thus propel you to seek out groups that are more congenial to your skills, your customs, and your talents.

It may not be the case that you are too good for them or they are too good for you. It may just be a bad fit.

The same might apply to your work at a specific company. You may be too talented; your talents may not lie where the company needs them; your style may simply grate on that of the other employees. 

Will you feel rejected when you are let go? Surely. Will you feel that you do not want to walk away from the job because you will feel as though you had been forced out? Yes, you will. Is this a reason to stick with it even though it is a bad fit? Of course, it is not.

All of this to say that most rejections should not be taken personally, and should not be considered to be a meaningful reflection on who you are or what kind of person you are.
An honest man might be rejected for membership in a gang of thieves. This does not reflect on him. It reflects on them.

Clearly, rejection can only tell you that you do not fit if you are willing to accept the message. Someone who makes cold calls for a living might end up being unable to accept rejection. He may feel that if the first application has been denied, he needs merely to apply again and again and again.

We all need to learn how to deal with rejection. But it is impossible to deal with rejection if you feel rejected all the time about everything. 

If most of your life involves feeling like a competent member of a community or a company or a group, then you will have a much better chance of dealing with rejection. Better than if you are assaulted by rejections on a daily basis.

Which is one reason why most of us try, whenever possible, not to reject people unless it is absolutely necessary. 

If someone asks you to have a drink and you do not want to go, you ought not to say that you do not want to go. You ought not to declare forthrightly that  you do not want to improve your relationship with the person. You ought to say that you are too busy or otherwise committed.

Most people do this. It is basic to human etiquette. It has become customary because we have all learned that it is not worth the effort to provoke a confrontation or an angry reaction over something very small. It wastes time and energy, and it might create an enemy unnecessarily.

Openness and honesty, especially when it is rejecting, is simply rude. You are not doing anyone a favor by giving him yet another opportunity to thicken his skin.

Of course, in our open and honest age, some people will make it very difficult to refuse an invitation politely. They will insist and insist, aggressively, to the point where you will feel that you have only two choices: giving in or being extremely rude.

In other words, your good manners and your good character can get you exploited. This is not a reason to develop bad manners and bad character. It does mean that even the person with the best character will sometimes have to do something that is just plain rude.

One can only wonder how many young women have said Yes to hookups because they knew that if they said No their words would have been felt as a rejection and would have provoked anger or confrontation.

How many women have said Yes to hookups because the young man who was begging for it looked so pathetic that they could not stand seeing him in such a state of public abjection?

Let's call this a form of psychological coercion. It teaches you that if someone puts you in the position where your only choice is between rejecting him and giving in to something that you do not want to do, you are going to have to find  your inner rudeness. 

You might think that someone who cannot handle rejection needs you to help him to save face. In reality, by the time he reaches the begging stage he has no face to save.


David Foster said...

One of the best things I've read on the psychology of dealing with failure was written the British General William Slim. In 1942 he was appointed to command of a Corps in Burma, then under heavy attack by the Japanese. Within two months, he suffered a severe defeat, with heavy casualties, and was forced to withdraw his forces to India. In his book, Defeat Into Victory, he reflects on his thoughts and feelings at the time.

"The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing that I had attempted...Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory--for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it. He will go over in his mind the events of the campaign. 'Here,' he will think, 'I went wrong; here I took counsel of my fears when I should have been bold; there I should have waited to gather strength, not struck piecemeal; at such a moment I failed to grasp opportunity when it was presented to me.' He will remember the soldiers whom he sent into the attack that failed and who did not come back. he will recall the look in the eyes of men who trusted him. 'I have failed them,' he will say to himself, 'and failed my country!' He will see himself for what he is--a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn on himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood.

And then he must stop! For, if he is ever to command in battle again, he must shake off these regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off these atacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat--they are more than from victory."

By The Sword said...

Outstanding quote David.

Susan Walsh said...

Interesting post, Stuart, thanks for the link. I think you've hit on something important with the idea of coercion to avoid rejection. I think this is quite prevalent in hookup culture. Many hookups occur out of awkwardness, pity, fear of unflattering gossip, etc. Of course, people could avoid these uncomfortable dilemmas if they resisted peer pressure to make choices congruent with their true values.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks David and Susan. The quote from General Slim is wonderful for providing us a great plan for overcoming defeat and failure.

I agree with Susan that young people often do not have strong enough values to reject the kinds of manipulation involved when young men try to seduce them by acting pathetic.

I too think it is very, very strange that young men would be so desperate that they engage in such a cheap trick to score a hookup.